9 expert tips for de-cluttering your home office

by Rachel Smith
27 September 2019

Post originally published Oct 2015 and updated Sept 2019

I know that a lot of people function best in organised chaos, but I can’t think – let alone write – when I’m surrounded by mess and clutter. De-cluttering your home office is really the only option for most of us if we want to get anything done at all. 

So here are some tips from the experts, on how to de-clutter your workspace once and for all.

1. Batch similar tasks.

We’ve written about batching before and while it’s great for all kinds of tasks freelancers do, it can be especially useful when de-cluttering. For example, you take the time to do similar tasks, like file emails, handle your paperwork, clean out your office drawers, go through your books and figure out what you want to donate so you can free up shelf space. Batching that specific task requires focus and zeroing in on it until it’s done. Resist the urge to multitask, set a timer if you have to, and just attack the one task at hand. It can be very rewarding at the end, trust me!

2. Practice OHIO.

It’s a productivity rule that stands for Only Handle It Once – coined by Extreme Productivity author Bob Pozen. The idea is, you handle papers on your desk once only – and do what needs to be done, whether that’s filing them, trashing them etc. Same goes for email and other things that pile up in your home office. (OHIO can also be great for other decluttering tasks around the home – for example, laundry. You take clothes off the line and fold them into the basket as you do, rather than just dumping them in the basket, having to take them elsewhere to fold, etc.)

3. Digitise whatever you can.

While the idea of scanning a gazillion things makes my eyes glaze over, I’ve recently heard about some great scanning apps out there (some free, some paid) that will enable you to quickly scan those bits and bobs you want to keep. Some offer handy extras such as text recognition (so you can convert a document to Word). Try CamScanner or Evernote’s Scannable app. This is a fantastic way to ensure less paper clutter around the place.

4. Utilise the one minute rule.

Happiness expert Gretchen Rubin‘s one minute strategy basically goes like this: if you can do it in one minute, don’t debate it – just get in there and get the task done. “One friend told me that her apartment went from being a wreck to being quite tidy, without much effort on her part. Another friend said that his productivity had shot up; because he got so many little things got done quickly, he had much more time for the bigger tasks,” writes Rubin on her blog. I will do a version of this when doing other things – like if I’m making a cup of tea, I’ll unpack the dishwasher or tidy up while the tea is steeping, rather than just twiddling my thumbs.

5. If it doesn’t ‘spark joy’, it goes.

Marie Kondo’s bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, has amassed a cult following of die-hard de-clutterers who are Kon-Mari-ing their possessions with wild abandon. One of her deceptively simple strategies is to touch each of your possessions and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?” If not, says Kondo, it has no place in your home or your office. Here’s something else I wrote about doing this in your home workspace. 

6. Establish clear zones for your ‘stuff’.

I interviewed organisational guru Peter Walsh years ago for a women’s magazine and the man really has a LOT to say about how clutter affects our lives, our relationships, our… er, backsides. When it comes to the home office though, I love his tip about zones. “You have to work hard to keep flat surfaces clear so it’s important to establish zones for mail, for files you need regularly but not all the time,” says Walsh, “and it forces you to put stuff in its home and sets a limit for the volume of stuff you can keep.” He’s also big on vertical storage. Don’t pile it horizontally. Use all that space over your head.

7. Sort, keep, discard.

We all know those piles of paper, bills, story notes, post-it notes and so on can reach critical mass after just a week of ignoring them and/or adding to them. What to do? Katrina Springer from The Organised Housewife is big on tackling those piles head on. So pull them all out, and start sorting it into piles according to things you need to file, things you need to shred, things you can just chuck. And ideally, you should do this every single day to stay on top. If you’re thinking, ‘Gah! Every day, nooooo!’ then refer to Rubin’s ‘one minute rule’, above. You really can get quite a bit done in one minute.

8. Shoot for Inbox Zero.

It’s not just your desk, it’s your email inbox, am I right!? Which is why every night by 11pm I try to reach inbox zero. It’s a bit of a game and it’s a bit of a necessity for the coming day ahead. Because I know when I wake up, the emails pile up again and if I don’t action things immediately and ensure that lovely bit of white space under the few emails left in my inbox, I’m liable to forget something or miss something important. Inbox Zero really does help my ‘brain clutter’, I’ve found. Everyone’s got their own tactics but here are some strategies to get you started on this great habit.

9. When all else fails…

Dump all the clutter in a massive box and put it out of your sight. Yes, it’s totally cheating, but it’s a great strategy when you need a clean office NOW and can’t commit to hours of de-cluttering. (I should know, I did it recently.) However, while researching this post I was stoked to find that the ‘dump it in a box and forget about it’ strategy is actually a THING in the de-clutter world. Leo Barbauta, from the (very minimalist) blog Zen Habits, says if you have a ‘maybe’ pile of stuff you don’t know what to do with, “put [those things] in a box, mark today’s date, and store it somewhere out of sight for 6 months — open it up after 6 months and if you never needed any of the items, get rid of them.”

What are your top tips on maintaining a clutter-free office, or are you one of those work-in-chaos types?

Rachel Smith

As a kid, Rachel used to carry around a little suitcase of pens and paper so she could stop and write stories whenever inspiration struck. These days, she writes for a living, in between running the show at Rachel's List. Some of you may actually believe she looks like a megaphone in real life, but it's not the case. Honest.
Rachel Smith

4 responses on "9 expert tips for de-cluttering your home office"

  1. AlisonH2 says:

    The last one. One minute. Done. Now I’ve got time to do that online course!

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      I’m still ignoring my box of ‘maybe’ things, Alison… I might open it in a month or two 🙂

  2. The other strategy I like to do from time to time — is hire Susanne Thiebe — uber organised German lady is a professional organiser. Her details here: LessMess (02) 9712 4159; m 0407 772 663; e mail@lessmess.com.au For any of you who need that deep clean effect…

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      Ooh thanks for the tip Claire. I could be needing some tough love … doing my tax right now and can’t find my mobile OR the landline, there’s so many piles of paper everywhere! Argh.

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